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J.J. Cale & Eric Clapton: The Road To Escondido

Genre: Honky Tonk
Label: Reprise

Reviews of the J.J. Cale and Eric Clapton album, The Road To Escondido, make me laugh. They read like a botanist walking through a field of flowers - heavy on facts and light on scents. The important context of Escondido isn't the Cale-Clapton music connection unless you're an historian. If you're a sympathetic listener, the important context isn't music at all, it's place. In Spanish and Portuguese, escondido means a hidden place. That's the straight definition. But the word often also implies somewhere dark as well as hidden - a sinister hidden locale with the emphasis on sin.

Weeds grow tall around the gas pumps in front of the Ponderosa Club, a converted 1950s gas station hidden in the remote Midwest countryside not far from a military base. The pumps give the place a roadhouse feel and provide cover for moms and dads who drive by in daylight.

It's the third Friday night of July in the summer of 1969. Payday. The local sheriff will stop by around midnight and collect some cash from Red, the club owner, a Vietnam vet with a metal plate in his head. Red's got a good thing going. He tells me that nobody can bust him because the State cops won't touch him until the local sheriff calls them in, which isn't going to happen as long as he makes payroll. With the backroom poker game, women, tampered booze, and lack of licensing, Red's in need of protection.

But, this particular Friday night Red's wasted early. His girlfriend gut shot the doorman-bouncer the night before. She and the bouncer had been playing games in the parking lot. Then she found out he'd also been playing with Red's half sister. Relationships and codes of conduct in the Ponderosa are complex. Red's pissed he has to work the door and swims in water-based booze. Bartender tells me that Red's metal plate and liquor are a bad mix. Red takes me to a supply closet before things go dark and pushes some cash at me for the sheriff. He figures you got to trust a tall skinny guitar player that wears glasses.

Red's down. I make the monthly donation between sets. Billy, the card mechanic that runs the game, works the door. Fights break out. Locals take it outside and damage each other's pickups. The military guys are more of a problem. They fight indoors. Every time that happens Billy screams at us to play louder.

This is a post-jazz honky tonk (or roadhouse or juke-joint, etc.). This is the "place" of The Road To Escondido.

You shouldn't listen to honky tonk music when the sun is shining. You shouldn't listen to honky tonk music when you're sober. The backdrop of Escondido is a no man's land cordoned off for hell raising.

That doesn't necessarily mean "hee-haw" hell raising. A lot of it is sad and quiet, but not less dangerous than loudmouth fistfights. That silent little blond at the end of the bar may be fondling a .38 in her handbag. You just never know.

The music these joints have spawned was designed to help patrons drown sorrows, raise hell, and, maybe above all else, help tonk owners sell more beer.

B.B. King knows honky tonks. J.J. Cale knows honky tonks. And Eric Clapton knows where the music that's inspired his career comes from. It's fitting that Clapton's two duet albums are with King and Cale.

For those who think this discussion of honky tonks is too literal, I acknowledge that it doesn't take a leap in logic to say they serve a more general, symbolic role - representing a dark, rebellious dimension of human nature. But what's the fun in that? Other writers with bigger dictionaries can wipe the blood off the floor.

Saying that the music on Escondido is honky tonk will be a problem for some who associate the phrase "honky tonk" with a particular style or sub-genre. That's a mistake. Again, it's about place. Honky tonks were to be found in a variety of locations with a variety of clientele. I use the past tense because I'm not talking about contemporary urban cowboy bars. As a honky tonk musician in the '50s - '70s, odds are the crowds you played for liked country, rock, blues, and R&B. Only way you could get the party rolling was to mix it up, throw in elements of a number of styles to keep the customers satisfied.

The bands in most honky tonks were straightforward - usually a drummer, bass player, one or two guitars, and a singer. Trios were prime because you made more money that way. Equipment was straightforward too - an old Telecaster or Strat and a medium sized Fender amp that had reverb and tremolo, which served as the guitarist's effects. In the '70s, pedals were introduced and things got more elaborate - maybe a fuzz box, a wah, or if you were cutting edge, an Echoplex.

Point is, most honky tonk music is direct and raw. J.J. Cale and Eric Clapton guitar fans should love Escondido. Want to hear what these two guitarists (and several of the guest artists on the album) sound like with guitar, amp and nothing in between - direct and in your ear? This is the album. Drop the pre, post and software effects - plug in and play. You're not going to get more pure Clapton guitar work unless you catch him noodling at home.

I have to admit, there are some non-honky tonk moments. "Three Little Girls," the tune penned by Clapton that's a nod to domestic bliss, seems out of place, though it makes some sense as a sequel to "Sporting Life Blues." But then, this honky tonk discussion is my take on the album, not Cale's or Clapton's (after all, the title isn't The Road from Escondido). I could say something similar about Billy Preston's Hammond B3. Preston, may God rest his soul, adds something sweet to any mix, but you'd be hard pressed to find that instrument in a honky tonk. Maybe a Fender Rhodes (which you will hear on the album), an upright acoustic piano (which you will also hear on the album) that belonged to the house, or a Vox Super Continental organ, but you wouldn't find a honky tonk bar band lugging around a monster B3. You'll hear Preston's B3 on Escondido because it sounds so good.

It may take a few, or several, listens for you to figure out who's playing what guitar parts (sometimes even who's singing), but this fact also tells you something about context. Cale and Clapton are in sync. Clapton's hit covers of Cale's music, such as "Cocaine" and "After Midnight," weren't remote Top 40 gimmicks. This music is Eric Clapton.

Some critics have opined that when you combine two "laid back" artists like Cale and Clapton you get an hour of laid back music that lacks sufficient fire or energy, and that might be true to ears that haven't spent quality time in dives where a left hook carries more weight than a college diploma. Something strange happens to musicians who work honky tonks. From up on stage, what takes place on the floor is the ultimate spectator sport. After you've seen more than Dante could imagine, some self-imposed distance is the only thing that keeps you from taking a step down that road to escondido.

While to music botanists the significance of The Road To Escondido and the ground from which it grew may be the Cale-Clapton connection, to the rest of us, the significance will be hormones inspired to swim upstream.

Added: November 13th 2006
Reviewer: Tom Watson
Related Link: Visit J.J. Cale Online
Hits: 2827
Language: english


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